Education Materials

Mount Sinai Hospital is a University of Toronto patient care, teaching, and research centre.
Mount Sinai Hospital is a University of Toronto patient care, teaching, and research centre.

Frequently Asked Questions

FAQ: Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus)

This document has been prepared for educational purposes by Ellie Goldenberg, MPH. Should you have questions regarding individual health concerns or health care practices, please consult your physician or health care provider directly.

» What is Streptococcus pneumoniae or pneumococcus?

Streptococcus pneumoniae is a bacterium that causes respiratory infections in children and adults as well as meningitis. It is the most common cause of bacterial inner ear infection in children. It is common in adults and the most frequent cause of pneumonia among the elderly and those not able to fight off infections.

Everyone carries bacteria in their nose and throat without it making them sick. Streptococcus pneumoniae is found in the nose and throat of 10 - 40 % of healthy people without causing any symptoms of illness in these people.

Pneumococcal infections are most prevalent when respiratory infections such as colds are common, usually during the winter months.

» How is it Transmitted?

The bacterium is passed from person to person by touching, and by the person coughing and sneezing. Because about one in four people have this bacterium in their noses or throats, everyone is frequently exposed to this bacterium. However, most people do not become ill.

» Who is at Risk of Getting a Pneumococcal Infection?

Every year, about 1 in every 5,000 people will get a serious infection due to this bacterium.

People who have no spleen or are chronically ill with lung disease, heart disease, diabetes, cirrhosis, kidney failure, AIDS/HIV and other diseases that decrease ability to fight infections are at an increased risk of illness due to Streptococcus pneumoniae. People taking drugs/treatment such as steroids, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, people who have had a recent organ transplant and elderly people who have had an episode of influenza also have a greater chance of developing an infection caused by the bacterium.

» How is it Treated?

Penicillin is normally used to treat pneumococcal infections. In some cases the bacteria may have developed resistance to penicillin and another antibiotic will be used. It usually takes 24 - 48 hours for the treatment to work. People who have the bacteria in their nose and throat, but are not sick, should not be treated.

» Is there a Vaccine Available?

A vaccine is available for those at high risk of serious infection. Your doctor will help to decide whether you or a member of your family should be vaccinated. Only a single dose of vaccine is required. It provides protection to 80% of young adults and 50 - 70% of the elderly against pneumococcal infections.

» Who Should Receive this Vaccine?

Pneumococcal vaccine is recommended for the following groups (per canadian NACI guidelines):

  • All persons 65 years of age;
  • Adults with no spleen, spleenic dysfunction or sickle cell disease;
  • Adults with the following conditions: cirrhosis, alcoholism, chronic kidney disease/failure, diabetes, chronic cerebrospinal fluid leak, HIV infection and other immunosuppressive conditions (Hodgkin's disease, lymphoma, multiple myeloma or organ transplant)
  • Children 2 years with no spleen, splenic dysfunction or sickle cell disease; and
  • All children 2 years with kidney disease/failure, chronic cerebrospinal fluid leak, HIV infection and other immunosuppressive conditions.

The vaccine is not recommended for children < 2 years as they do not respond satisfactorily. It is not recommended for prevention of inner ear infections of childhood.

» Are there any Side Effects?

Reactions to a single dose of vaccine are usually mild. Local soreness and redness around the injection site may occur, but usually last less than 48 hours. Local swelling occurs less commonly. Occasionally a slight fever may occur, usually confined to the 24 hour period following vaccination.

This website has been made possible through an unrestricted educational grant from Pfizer Canada Inc.
Copyright 1999-2007 Department of Microbiology, Mount Sinai Hospital, Toronto, Canada. All rights reserved.